The talented director Alison Maclean has not made a fictional feature film since her superb 1999 adaptation of Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son.” (She hasn’t been idle all this time, though; she’s worked extensively on TV series such as “The L Word,” “The Tudors” and “Gossip Girl.”) This makes “The Rehearsal,” a full-length, nondocumentary Maclean creation set and shot in New Zealand, her home country, cause for celebration merely on account of its existence.
Ms. Maclean wrote “The Rehearsal” with Emily Perkins, adapting — and rather freely at that — the debut novel by Eleanor Catton (whose second novel, “The Luminaries,” won the 2013 Man Booker Prize). The movie opens with an overhead shot of a desktop cluttered with applications and head shots of teenagers paper-clipped to them, and the chatter of adults arguing for and against their favored kids. They seem like Olympian gods trying to determine which mortals they want to mess with.
As it happens, they are instructors at a prestigious New Zealand drama academy. The movie descends to earth, so to speak, to find Stanley (James Rolleston), a handsome, bright-eyed, but not particularly extroverted first-year student at the school, sharing a bus seat with Isolde (Ella Edward), an attractive girl a few years his junior, who is off to tennis lessons. The two chat awkwardly and when Isolde gets off the bus, the movie unexpectedly follows her, and shows her walking in on a sexual liaison between a teenage girl and an older tennis coach.
The student is Isolde’s sister, and the tennis instructor is rather famous, and a scandal ensues. Stanley learns about it via a TV screen while he is bartending to pay his school bills. The movie takes an oblique, almost offhand approach to narrative for its first hour. It focuses on the quotidian details of life among a group of talented students and demanding, sometimes capricious and cruel teachers, the most vivid of whom, Hannah (Kerry Fox), has taken an interest in Stanley.
Eventually the plot threads tighten, and it becomes clear that there’s some trouble ahead. Stanley engages in a tentative romance with Isolde while developing, with his assigned group of classmates, a theater piece about the sex scandal — knowing all the while that the other party in the incident is Isolde’s older sister.
As the movie flits from month to month of the drama school’s term (the sometimes abrupt titles signaling the changes of date are reminiscent of those in Kubrick’s “The Shining”), it convincingly conveys the raw feelings that result when life and art rub too fiercely against each other, and how the wounds are that much more severe when you add adolescence to the mix. “The Rehearsal” also accomplishes the tricky task of demonstrating how actors with plain talent and little more gain credibility with training and polish. Mr. Rolleston is not the only performer in the film required to show this metamorphosis, but he is the most impressive.
Ms. Maclean frames her shots in casually elegant wide-screen, often leaving big empty spaces in the middle of the composition while a telling detail looks out at the viewer from a far corner. Similarly, a narrative development involving a character who acts as a catalytic agent in certain scenes brings a different set of concerns to the movie’s forefront, and could catch a viewer off guard; it’s clearly meant to.